The book jacket is designed by Vanessa Bell, sister to Virginia Woolf. Her drawing for the front of the jacket is of trees and grasses, many black pen lines pulling and curling in vortical movement, little differentiation made between figure and ground.
Shelley Hirsch was in London for a short stop and we talked of stream-of-consciousness, her speech by way of illustration of the process and its importance to her singing suddenly branching into organic, unpredictable storylines that in their density came close to Vanessa Bell’s drawing. Shelley then talked about an essay she had come across at the beginning of her life as an improvising singer: Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting: a London adventure. Woolf sets out to buy a pencil, the excuse to immerse herself into human life, its grotesques, the passing snatches of its exchanges, its glimpsed scenes, overheard chatter, press and movement within the atmospheres of the city.
I told her I knew the essay well. I have a copy in The Death of the Moth, collected essays published by the Hogarth Press in 1942, tattered now, barely retaining its book jacket by Vanessa Bell. Woolf urges walking as an opening of the senses but the movement is through streets and over river into the strange digressions of her own mind. Nothing in life repeats. “The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past,” she wrote (and this was in 1930); “nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now.” She experienced all of these bodies as a potential dissolution of the self: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”
After the conversation, Shelley and I walked over the road to Cafe Oto’s project space to hear a septet of string players: Jennifer Allum, Bruno Guastalla, Guillaume Viltard, Hannah Marshall, Tim Fairhall, Angharad Davies, Ute Kangiesser. They present themselves in a horseshoe shape in that order, from left to right, taking half the building; the other half occupied by a small audience so predominantly made up of improvising musicians – myself and Shelley, Steve Beresford, Eddie Prévost, Marjolaine Charbin, John Chantler, Daichi Yoshikawa – that a mirror septet is within the bounds of possibility, should anybody wish to suggest it.
I listen closely for a while, studying the sandbagged air-raid shelter ambience of the Project Space. Then as Guillaume squeezes a second bridge between the fingerboard and strings of his double bass I open my notebook. Sometimes to write is to listen closer, if only because each moment of listening and observation demands a fitting language but also suggests its own digressions. Angharad flicks the strings of her violin and I think of school and those incidents of minor bullying when a bigger boy flicks his victim hard to the head or arm with an audible pop. From outside we can hear a loud Jamaican voice. Periodically trains pass close by, their rushing metallic roar wadding the room like an abrupt influx of iron filings within which the music’s flinty intensity is momentarily buried. Can we talk about surface and depth, a constant movement of small cries, whistle tones, dark notes and silver? I am struck by the sight of so much grained brown wood – two violins, three cellos, two double basses – and how the swirling grain is a static echo of the physical movements out of which musical form is developed. Sliding, striking, flicking, muting, bounding, abrading, tapping, snapping, drawing and pulling. The angularity of an arm moving according to its nature as a hinge. The spring of horsehair held in tension. A bow moving elliptically, as if stroking the stomach of a placid bear.
Then there is the doing of nothing, inactive, silent, looking up at the corrugated plastic skylight or down at the floor. Ideas move in contagions: bass sneezes; cello catches a cold. Shouts penetrate the sandbags from outside. Many years ago these would have been bothersome. Now the music absorbs whatever infiltrates its space (already the bodies and minds of others). Then a sudden cessation during which quieter voices can be heard from the street; a long pause, intensity trembles in the air until released by subtle shifting of body language. The heart of the music falls silent once more, covered as it must be by the brambles and thick tree trunks of ordinary living.